Fais un flash-back au temps passé: Serge Gainsbourg chez les yé-yé

Photo: B. Mrozek

When during a Berlin birthday party in June 2003 a young DJ placed the stylus into the groove of a vinyl record, an upbeat rhythm filled the Weinerei wine bar. Guitar strings mimicked the nervous tamtams of a drum kit, then a male voice was heard, half speaking, half singing vocals in French:

Ni les tamtams des yé-yé-yé
Ni les grigris que tu portais
Da-doo-run-run que tu écoutais
Au bal doum-doum où tu dansais
1

Twenty years later, the very same song can be heard during another birthday party at the Centre Français de Berlin. But whilst both the person celebrating his birthday and the former DJ are now 20 years older, the tune played somehow seems to sound younger than the older version. Although the lyrics and the melody are still the same, the beat of the tune has changed significantly. Echo effects can be heard, a cacophonous soundstorm, followed by a danceable Latin rhythm.

What happened in those 20 years between the two Berlin DJ sets?

Since this question is too broad to be answered in this blog which is devoted to Jakob Vogel, the author of this contribution will focus on the musical origins of the song in question and how it changed.2

FAIS UN FLASHBACK AU TEMPS PASSÉ

The distinctive voice in both recordings clearly seems to belong to Serge Gainsbourg. His song is entitled “Chez les yé-yé” and dates back to May 1964. A Scopitone music video from the time shows a rather reserved performance of Gainsbourg’s song.

The climax of this almost motionless and inactive bodily performance of Gainsbourg standing still while singing – especially in contrast to the dynamic and funny actions of the dancer Jean-Pierre Cassel in the background to the amplified music of the Hungarian jazz guitarist Elek Bacsik – is the moment when Gainsbourg pulls out an object that obviously is a kind of stiletto. Together with the lyrics of the song, which at first glance seem nonsensical, the performance relates to a specific moment in French social and cultural history.

When rock and roll arrived in France in the 1950s, it was perceived mainly through French-language covers by French singers. The extraordinary career of Jean-Philippe Smet, better known as Johnny Hallyday, is an exception in terms of success, but its beginnings were typical of the early scene. Hallyday started singing American cowboy songs and some numbers by rockabilly musicians such as Elvis Presley or country singer Floyd Robinson.3 There were many other singers around the Parisian club Golf-Druot, most notably Claude Moine – also known as Eddy Mitchell –, Hervé Forneri a.k.a. Dick Rivers, and Christian Blondieau a.k.a. Long Chris. But when Gainsbourg wrote his song “Chez les yé-yé”, the scene had already changed.

There were new artists such as Les Chaussettes Noires or Richard Anthony, and female musicians such as Sheila, Alice Dona and Sylvie Vartan, who were all subsumed under a new term: yéyé.

NI LES TAM-TAM DES YÉ-YÉ-YÉ-É

Although the term has origins in the English language, it was in France that it became synonymous with a sub-genre of 1960s pop music. Also known in southern European countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, and denounced by politicians in the GDR in the course of the ciminalization of “Western” popular culture, the term now signified a musical style.4

It is unclear where and when exactly the term was coined, but it first began to appear in song lyrics in the early 1960s. A well-known example is Mongo Santamaria’s tune “Yeh yeh” from 1963, which was covered in 1964 by the British jazz organist Georgie Fame, who was very popular with the London mod scene.

Even more prominently, the word “yeah” served as a hook in the Beatles’ song “She Loves You”, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in July 1963 and also recorded in German (as “Sie liebt dich”). A chart-breaker for several months in a number of countries, the song had a decisive effect in spreading the word “yeah” to an international audience beyond the UK, where it was already well established in casual conversation – although often deplored by defenders of “standard” English as a “vulgar” Americanism.

In France for example, the girl group Les Gam’s introduced their cover version of a doo-wop song by the American group The Exciters with a “yéyé” shout in the same year.

Whereas in Britain the Beatles’ music was considered “beat”, in France sociologist Edgar Morin became one of the first academics who adapted the French version yéyé (or yé-yé) from the vernacular to describe a new generational approach to music, after an overcrowded open-air concert at the Place de la Nation in Paris on 22 July 1963 had descended into mass panic.

The concert was hosted by the radio show and magazine Salut les copains. As one of the first open-air events in the young rock music world it was organized at short notice, so the organizers – and the French police – had little to no experience. They expected between 30,000 and 40,000 listeners, but almost 150,000 young music fans literally overran the Place de la Nation, which led to some disorderly scenes – to put it mildly. Several incidents of destruction of public and private property were reported, 73 arrests were made and there was at least one severe incident in which a young girl was allegedly raped.5 These events led to a nationwide debate about the mental state of French youth, especially a deviant subculture referred to as “voyous” or “blousons noirs”. Several headlines accused the new kind of music of causing violence.6

In a widely debated article for the French daily newspaper Le Monde entitled “Une nouvelle classe d’âge”, Edgar Morin chose the term yéyé for this new music scene. For him, the “courant yéyé” signified a new culture resulting from the emergence of both a youthful mass market and a certain musical style. For Susan Sontag, “what the French call yé-yé” simply signified “post rock-’n’-roll”, as she explained in her influential essay “Notes on ‘Camp’”.7 New youth media such as Salut les copains and even commercials also picked up on the term. Yéyé superseded previous labels for the younger generation such as “la nouvelle vague”, coined by the journalist Françoise Giroud in the news magazine L’Express, and “tricheurs” (cheaters), which had been popularised by a 1958 film of the same title by director Marcel Carné.8 Yéyé replaced these older labels, and became the common expression to describe new, mainly francophone singers in the early 1960s. But the musicians pigeonholed as yéyé artists were in fact from a variety of genres, extending from rock and roll to pop songs to chanson.

However, in the French media landscape – at least to some extent – it marked first and foremost not a musical genre but a scene of juvenile delinquency – a debate comparable to the one in Great Britain about mods and rockers or in Germany about “Halbstarke” (a term literally meaning “half strongs”).

NON RIEN N’AURA RAISON DE MOI

When the yéyé wave hit France, Serge Gainsbourg was already a famous musician, but not a pop singer: his second album presented a mixture of new rhythms like mambo and cha-cha, and others that were more jazzy or chanson than pop.9 Gainsbourg was neither a blouson noir nor a yéyé.

On the contrary, he spoke of the yéyés with disgust and disdain. The scene was, according to him, “Tino Rossi avec des guitares électriques”, as he put it in a famous quote.10 But despite this verbal distance, Gainsbourg was quick to contribute to the musical fashion of yéyé. He wrote several songs for stars that were associated with the scene, some of them very successful: “Vilaine fille, mauvais garcon” and “Ô ô sheriff” for Petula Clark, others for Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, “Laisse tomber les filles”, and the hugely successful “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” for France Gall.

The title of France Gall’s “N’écoute pas les idoles” already hinted at a certain distance, since in France, the stars of the yéyé scene were also known as “les idoles”. But while France Gall clearly became one of these “idoles” (despite the title of her song), Gainsbourg distanced himself from the commercial trend in his own musical work – while at the same time profiting from it through commercial songwriting.

If you listen to the lyrics of his song “Chez les yé-yé”, there is not only an ironic undertone; Gainsbourg is clearly mocking the entire yéyé movement. The line Da Doo Ron Ron que tu écoutais refers to the French version of the song “Da Doo Ron Ron”, popularised by The Crystals, performed in France by Johnny Hallyday and Richard Anthony (and later Sylvie Vartan). At the same time, the repetition of short one-syllable words like tam-tam, gris-gris, doum-doum and sing-sing are used in a playful doo-wop fashion and can be read as a mocking of Edgar Morin’s term yéyé, as Loïc Picaud and Gilles Verlant explain.11

The line J’irai chercher ma Lolita chez les yéyé was aimed at the youth cult of the early 1960s, especially the sexualisation of young singers such as France Gall or Jane Birkin – the very same sexualisation that Gainsbourg contributed to with his later songs, especially “Je t’aime… (moi non plus)”. At the same time, he made a connection with literature, referencing Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita – much like in his 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, which also referred to Nabokov, who in fact was one of Gainsbourg’s life-long references.12

In an interview with Denise Glaser in Discorama in 1963, Gainsbourg explained about his absence from the yéyé scene:

Je me faisais du souci de ne jamais être dans “Salut les copains”. J’étais le vieux schnock. C’était dur. C’était très dur pour le moral.13

Perhaps we do not have to take this complaint too seriously.

Already in 1962, at the beginning of the yéyé wave, Gainsbourg wrote “La Javanaise” for Juliette Gréco, a song that was clearly in the chanson tradition rather than being a typical pop song, although there are moments in a number of songs in which Gainsbourg comes at least close to the twist and rock rhythms of the time.

On his 1964 EP “Chez les yé-yé”, Gainsbourg released another song mocking the musical scene, “Les temps des yoyos”, in which he expressed a melancholy message about the limitations of time and love, although again with an ironic touch.It was David Looseley who explained in his study of the early French rock scene that many of the French cover versions through which American rock and roll was perceived were in fact ironic or satirical approaches – Henri Salvador’s performances are a good example.14 Gainsbourg’s songs about the yéyés (and the yoyos) are written in this very tradition.

It is thus astonishing how his contribution over the years has been increasingly associated with yéyé music – at least outside France. In 1965, the German news magazine Der Spiegel stated with astonishment that there was a strange love of the Germans for French chanson:

But one can explain it: Because no other form of music is as popular and arty at the same time as the chanson, the humorous and satirical construct that is made from documentary poetry, song and incidental music, which is quintessentially French, like Bordeaux and Bardot.15

According to the Spiegel article, French record companies saw West Germany as their “best foreign-language customer”. Compared to chansonniers such as Juliette Greco, who sold 30,000 records, Georges Brassens, who sold 60,000 records and Charles Aznavour, who even reached 100,000 records, Serge Gainsbourg of course stayed far behind. But the article mentioned the occurrence of an “intellectual French chanson offspring”, driven by Barbara, Anne Sylvestre, Jean Ferrat – and Serge Gainsbourg. It was not until 1967 that his scandalous hit with Jane Birkin, “Je t’aime”, made him perhaps the most recognised French singer of popular music worldwide.

Along with this fame came his national recognition as a French icon. And at international level, Gainsbourg is much better known than Johnny Hallyday, for example, who did not have much commercial success outside France, despite his role as a national French icon.

Back to the present.

AU BAL DOUM-DOUM OÙ TU DANSAIS

The song played at the Berlin party in 2023 is in fact a remix that combined club tunes with the meanwhile old-fashioned sounding lyrics of Gainsbourg’s “Chez les yé-yé” by Boogalox, one of many pseudonyms of the French Nu Jazz and Electro Swing producer and DJ Pascal Houpert, also known as Minimatic, Brother Moulinex or Monsieur Sonotone. The self-educated musician, DJ, arranger, producer and creator of the Tour Eiffel Records label explains his reasons for wanting to remix a 40-year-old song in an interview for this blog:

Donc j’ai essayé de réinventer une « folie » sonore, composée d’éléments disparates (brésil, sons, cris, avec une rythmique puissante mais organique) comme si, en fait, en plus des 2 musiciens de base (contrebasse/guitare), le reste d’un orchestre disparate était venu en session en studio réarranger le morceau. Et comme je reste musicien avant tout, j’aime jouer de pleins de toutes petites lignes instrumentales, qu’on entend parfois à peine, qui viennent se rajouter : orgue, guitares, percussions.16

A first remix was never officially released; it only appeared on a small number of non-commercial vinyl discs. After a release of the remix for the German label ChinChin Records failed for copyright reasons, an official release finally appeared in 2008 under Houpert’s alias Boogalox. This is the version which could be actually heard at the 2023 birthday party at the Centre Français de Berlin. But, as Houpert explains, this recording was in fact not a remix but a cover version. Several musicians, among them Pascal’s brother, played all the instrumental lines for this recording. And even the singing was new: the singer Stephane T., known for his Gainsbourg-esque voice, sung the song himself, although almost no one noticed the difference between the original and the cover version.

This 2008 Boogalox version appeared on several compilations that came in a retro-nostalgic French look, thereby contributing to the iconisation of Gainsbourg with yet another version of his “yéyé” song17 Or, as Houpert a.k.a. Boogalox explains: Pour moi il incarne l’essence d’une certaine créativité française : la classe, l’élégance, mais aussi une certaine posture (le côté poseur, presque situationniste).18 This very process of developing a sort of national icon around Gainsbourg and the yéyé movement (or rather: moment) is surprising, given the ambivalent history that Gainsbourg had with the French yéyé scene.

According to Houpert, ninety percent of those who listen to his record are not from France. Rejuvenated by those new recordings, “Chez les yé-yé” eventually became a classic club tune on a global scale, at the same time representing a musical “Frenchness” which has been Europeanized and ultimately globalized in its various adaptations: exported in the transglobal way Jakob Vogel has described as typical for European consumer goods in the Global Age.19

EST-CE QUE T’ENTENDS C’QUE J’TE DISAIS

The historical distance between Gainsbourg and the yéyé scene and the highly controversial debate about music as a factor of juvenile delinquency in the 1960s has meanwhile been more or less forgotten – at least in the public perception. To remember its bygone social meaning, one has to go back in history, or, as Gainsbourg put it: “fais un flash back au temps passé”. The same is true for any historical change, be it musical, societal or biographical. And an anniversary is perhaps the best opportunity to look back – and forward.

Bodo Mrozek

Pour lire l’entretien complet avec Minimatic a.k.a. Pascal Houpert en Français cliquez ici.



Citer ce billet
Bodo Mrozek (2023, 16 juin). Fais un flash-back au temps passé: Serge Gainsbourg chez les yé-yé. Du franco-allemand à l’âge global. Consulté le 23 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/vs91

  1. See Serge Gainsbourg:Mon propre rôle I. Présenté par Alain Coelho, Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1991: 101. []
  2. This contribution is the revised and updated version of a talk at the conference Serge G., organised by Olivier Julien at the Centre de Recherche sur les Musiques Populaires at Sorbonne University in April 2018. It is devoted to Jakob Vogel in celebration of his 60th anniversary. []
  3. Bodo Mrozek: Hallyday, Johnny, in: Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG Online), ed. by Laurenz Lütteken, MGG GbR: Kassel, Stuttgart, New York, 2016ff., October 2018, URL: https://www.mgg-online.com/mgg/stable/48132 []
  4. Bodo Mrozek and Paolo Prato: Yé-yé, in: Paolo Prato, David Horn, John Shepherd (eds), Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World (EPMOW), Vol. VIII-XIV, Genres, Vol. XI, Genres: Europe: Bloomsbury Academic: New York, 2017: 826-828. []
  5. See Florence Tamagne: “La Nuit de la Nation. Jugendkultur, Rock’n’Roll und moral panics im Frankreich der sechziger Jahre,” in: Bodo Mrozek, Alexa Geisthövel, Jürgen Danyel (eds), Popgeschichte Vol. 2: Zeithistorische Fallstudien, Bielefeld: transcript, 2014: 41-62, here: 57. An English and a French version can be found here. []
  6. See Bodo Mrozek: Jugend–Pop–Kultur. Eine transnationale Geschichte, Berlin: Suhrkamp 2014: 601-613. []
  7. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’”, in: Partisan Review 31 (1964) 4: 515–530. []
  8. Mrozek, Jugend–Pop–Kultur: 244, 289. []
  9. See Franck Maubert: Gainsbourg à rebours suivi Propos sur l’art, Paris: Fayard 1986: 44. []
  10. Ibid.: 107. []
  11. See Loïc Picaud and Gilles Verlant: L’intégrale Gainsbourg. L’histoire de toutes ses chansons, Paris: Les Éditions Fetjaine, 2011: 140. []
  12. Ibid.: 140. []
  13. Quoted in Franck Maubert: Gainsbourg à rebours: Suivi de Propos sur l’art, Paris: Fayard, 1986: 44. []
  14. See David L. Looseley, Popular Music in Contemporary France: Authenticity, Politics, Debate. Oxford: Berg, 2003. []
  15. Own translation from German. For the German original cf.  “Chansons: Herz im: Chanson”, in: Der Spiegel 14 (1965), online: https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/herz-im-hals-a-717245a4-0002-0001-0000-000046170029. []
  16. Quote from an interview with Pascal Houpert by Bodo Mrozek: « Une réincarnation de Monsieur Serge » : la mondialisation de Gainsbourg par la culture club, 6.7.2023, online: https://pophistory.hypotheses.org/4144. []
  17. Following on from a 1985 version by Étienne Daho, a 1991 version by Chris Evans, a 1993 instrumental version by the Alain Brunet Quartet, a duet by Stéphane Lucas and Virginie Coossa from 2009 and a 2011 version recorded by Cécile Cassell. See Picaud/Verlant: L’intégrale Gainsbourg: 141. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. See Jakob Vogel, Europa und die Welt, die Welt in Europa, in: Étienne François, Thomas Serrier (eds), Europa. Die Gegenwart unserer Geschichte, Bd. III: Globale Verflechtungen, ed. by Jakob Vogel, Darmstadt: wgb 2019: 9-13, 12. []

Bodo Mrozek

I am a historian, working on cultural and contemporary history. In my recent book Jugend - Pop - Kultur. Eine transnationale Geschichte (Histoire de la pop. Quand la culture jeune dépasse les frontières), I analyze both the criminalization and the establishment of an international youth and pop culture during the second half of the 20th century. Currently, I am a researcher at the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies of the Institute for Contemporary History Munich-Berlin.

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  1. 06/07/2023

    […] Pour en savoir plus sur Serge Gainsbourg, Minimatic et la mondialisation de la musique française par la culture club, cliquez ici.  […]

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